Ex IDF intel chief: Plan to remove Syria chemical arms 'important test'

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Weeks before John Kerry or Russia's Sergei Lavrov, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin proposed that Russia could force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, as an alternative to US-led military strikes in the wake of the alleged, large-scale nerve gas attack Aug. 21st outside Damascus.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief, told Israel's Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a 'genuine achievement' for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin.

Yadlin, now head of Israel's leading think tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), demurred in an interview Tuesday if he knew the origins of the chemical arms removal plan that he first raised publicly last month, but which US and Russian officials acknowledged only this week that Obama and Putin had previously discussed, including at the G-20 summit last week.

But as head of a think tank trying to come up with 'out of box' ideas to solve complex security problems, the solution made sense, Yadlin told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, given both Washington's reluctance to become deeply enmeshed in Syria's civil war, and because of Putin's influence over Assad.

“When we thought about, since America is not willing to exercise excessive power or a long or decisive campaign against Assad, what will be an outcome that, on the one hand ,will eliminate the future exercise of chemical weapons, and on the other may not…escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional war,” Yadlin said.

“So, we thought that if Assad will be asked by Putin,” he said. “Putin is the key for the deal, because Putin is basically keeping Assad alive.”

“So if [Putin] says to himself, 'OK, I want to avoid an American attack,..and I don’t want to be identified with the chemical attack of Assad, my client, I can really achieve both of these goals by a deal that will end the chemical capabilities of Syria, by…taking [them] out of Syria and destroying” them, Yadlin said.

“And that will give enough diplomatic victory for the [U.S.] president [Obama], that he has done something directly correlated to the crossing of [his] red line,” he continued. “Win win.”

There is, however, “a loser here,” Yadlin said. “The loser is that Assad is not punished for what he has done. And maybe also saying that this allowed him to kill and continue to kill his people with conventional weapons. [But] I think this should be dealt with on another channel.”

The forthcoming United Nations chemical weapons inspector report is not likely to make Russia publicly admit the Syrian regime's alleged complicity in the Aug. 21 attack, Yadlin said.

“The only thing they care about is how to stop the Tomahawks and the B-2s from attacking Syria.” Yadlin said of the Russians.

“That's a very important lesson I think also for the Iranian issue,” he continued. “If you have a credible [threat of a] military attack, it is very likely that it will create a diplomatic solution.”

“If [the US] is serious with military threats, and your enemies and opponents really evaluate and analyze you are going to use it, then the chances you will not have to use it to reach some diplomatic solution is much higher.”

But in Obama projecting a credible threat of military force to punish and deter Syrian chemical weapons use that drove Russia at least to seek a last ditch diplomatic alternative, did the United States not indirectly demonstrate to Iran too its credibility on WMD proliferation?

“This is not enough,” Yadlin said, “especially because of the difficulties in exercising it”–an apparent reference to the political dysfunction and chaos that accompanied Obama's decision to put the decision on Syria strikes to a vote in Congress, which the White House appeared this week to be at risk of losing.

The details of any agreement to secure and remove Syria's chemical weapons also matter enormously, Yadlin said, and are both diplomatically and logistically daunting

“It should be a deal that is not camouflage, not an excuse not to do anything, but a real, performance based and highly legitimate deal,” Yadlin said. “Legitimacy should come from a UN Security Council resolution, which includes chapter 7, the article which says, if the Syrians are not living up to their obligations, force can be used.”

“Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”

Asked about reports Russia had already Tuesday objected to a binding UN security council resolution and Putin saying the US must renounce its threat of force to secure the deal, Yadlin said such conditions would be, in his view, deal breakers. “Ok, if they prefer an American attack.”

“If you don't very much insist that the parameters are well defined, I think at the end of the day there will not be not a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic failure.”

“This will be an important test,” Yadlin said, in international eyes, not just of Russia and Syria, but of Obama.

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Israel's Ehud Barak heads to Washington


Israel's outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak departed for Washington on Monday, ahead of the arrival later this week of a high-level Israeli delegation coming to Washington for consultations, apparently as part of the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

Barak “departed this morning for a working visit to the US,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement sent to the Back Channel Monday. “During his visit he will meet with senior administration officials and the heads of the intelligence and defense establishments.”

Later in the week an Israeli delegation led by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and including Yitzhak Molho is due to arrive in Washington for consultations with their American counterparts, Haaretz reported. Israeli and American officials did not immediately confirm to the Back Channel if the consultations are part of the semi-annual US-Israel strategic dialogue, co-led by Amidror and US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The visits come ahead of planned trips to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry later this month and President Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel next month, and amid a steady tempo of high-level Israeli-American security consultations.
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Israeli military jets struck an alleged weapons convoy near Syria’s border with Lebanon late last month.

The visits also come as reports suggest Iran may be slowing down growth of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defined as a key Israeli “red line.” Continue reading

Iran weakness may hinder nuclear deal, strategists say

As six world powers prepare to meet Iran in Kazakhstan at the end of the month, the problem international negotiators may confront is Iran’s reluctance to negotiate from a position of weakness, analysts said Wednesday.

“Rather than play a positive game, it pursues a negative game: to deny the objective of its adversaries,” Middle East analyst Jon Alterman told an Iran conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday. “It does not have a positive goal.”

“Iran has the conviction that …if the U.S. accepts the offer, it must be disadvantageous to Iran,” he said. “So they will work to get the offer down again. To keep from getting the deal that people in the US government would like to strike.”

If the dynamic can’t be changed, “I fear we may spiral down away from a resolution,” he said.

“A negotiated settlement may be doable,” ret. Maj. Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. Continue reading

Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

The Lebanese Army reported the heavy presence of Israeli jets over its airspace on Wednesday, as sources in the region said Israeli Air Force jets had struck a target, possibly anti-aircraft systems, near Syria's border with Lebanon overnight.

Israeli officials would not comment on the reports.

“There was definitely a hit in the border area,” an unnamed regional security source told Reuters.

“The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon,” an unnamed security source told Agence France Press.

A source in the region told Al-Monitor the alleged target was anti-aircraft systems, or a convoy of components for such systems, but that could not be confirmed. The Associated Press reported that the target was SA-17 anti-aircraft missile defenses.

Syria possesses advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, including the Russian-made SA-17 (and, Israel believes, Russian made S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles). Israel would consider it a “game changer” if Hezbollah acquired such advanced systems, that would “change the balance of power” between Israel and Hezbollah, and interfere with Israel's ability to overfly Lebanon and deter Hezbollah, an Israeli security expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Israeli sources told McClatchy that what was targeted was electronic radar equipment, that targets the GPS system of drones, such as the U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle that went down over Iran in 2011.

“The entire world has said more than once that it takes developments in Syria very seriously, developments which can be in negative directions,” Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday.

A Hezbollah spokesperson told Lebanon's Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike, the paper reported. Regional sources suggested it might be in the interests of the parties involved, including Syria, Hezbollah and Israel, not to acknowledge a strike if one occurred.

Earlier Wednesday, a Lebanese army statement said a total of twelve Israeli planes had entered Lebanese air space in three waves overnight, beginning at 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and leaving on Wednesday at 7:55 a.m (12:55 a.m. ET), Reuters reported.

Israeli media, circumscribed by military censorship, cited Lebanese and other foreign media reports on the developments, which came after days of intense and secretive security consultations in Israel and with foreign capitals.

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reportedTuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

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Israeli military intel chief traveling to Washington

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is traveling to Washington for consultations with American officials, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

Israeli officials declined to confirm the focus of his visit, but it comes amid signs of heightened Israeli concern about Syria.

“Hezbollah has set up several bases in Syria, near known locations where Syrian President Bashar Assad is holding parts of his chemical warfare arsenal,” Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai reported Monday.

Netanyahu “recently held a number of security assessments focusing on the developments in the war-torn country,” the Ynet report said. “Israel’s defense establishment has been holding similar assessments, focused on the potential shift in the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah, in the event that the latter would get hold of Assad’s WMDs.”

Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama on Monday, following a meeting Sunday with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Netanyahu also dispatched his National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror to Moscow, reportedly to seek Russian help in averting various Syrian contingencies.

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Cairo hosts Gaza mediation talks as parties seek to avert Israeli invasion

Cairo is host to four-way talks on the Gaza crisis Saturday, as regional parties seek to move Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire and avert an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is hosting consultations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and several Palestinian leaders.

Speaking from Cairo, a senior advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Egyptian mediation efforts, while lamenting Israeli action as further unravelling aspirations for a two state solution.

“President Abbas has consistently offered negotiations for a two-state solution, but Israel has shown no interest in these negotiations,” the senior Abbas adviser told Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti Saturday. “So this is the result. And the Palestinian people pay the price. We have warned for a while that such a confrontation could be the outcome of the Arab Spring, in the absence of a peace process.”

With regard to the role of Egypt, the Palestinian senior adviser added, “Egypt has a critical role to play for both Palestinian mediation, according to the mandate from the Arab League, and between Israel and Hamas in the present crisis.”

Hours into day four of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel has hit some 800 targets in Gaza, while Hamas has launched some 750 rockets into Israel, including five in the direction of Tel Aviv and two towards Jerusalem, Yossi Melman reports from Tel Aviv Saturday:

Three Israeli civilians have been killed, and 40 Palestinians, both Hamas combatants and civilians, including children.

Eighty of the attempted Hamas rocket launches have failed, while 27 rockets hit urban areas and caused damage. The Iron Dome anti ballistic missile defense system has intercepted 230 Hamas rockets– about 8 out of 10 rockets it has attempted to intercept in the current confrontation.

Melman estimates that:

Israel is very reluctant to move in with a ground attack. The mobilization of reservists is mainly for psychological purposes to increase pressure on Hamas.

2. The chances of a cease fire are increased.

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Gaza war intensifies — on Twitter


Given how polarized the Israel-Palestinian issue already is in the region and around the world, the Gaza conflict of 2012 is proving increasingly hard to navigate in one key virtual battleground: Twitter.

The social media space has already become a key front in the battle for information and narrative sympathies in the two day old Operation Pillar of Defense, avidly used by journalists on the ground and foreign capitals, the warring parties, and hundreds of thousands of their followers and observers around the world, often using hashtags that signify the posters’ point of view (#Gazaunderattack #LifeUnderRockets #PillarofDefense). But beyond the accurate information offered from the ground in real time–reports of air strikes in Gaza City and air raid sirens in Tel Aviv, videos posted of the Iron Dome system firing to try to intercept Hamas rocket fire, and heartbreaking photos of children killed–the Twitter forum has also produced a dizzying stream of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, confusion, reports of rockets hitting Tel Aviv that didn’t, official accounts that seemed fake and fake accounts that seemed real.

In the deluge, even experienced journalists and ordinary observers were having trouble separating fact from fiction, real information from propaganda. Continue reading

Observers Fear Conflict in Gaza Could Escalate


Israel on Thursday said that 15 Palestinians had been killed, 9 of them militants, since the start of its military operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense, a day earlier.

Three Israeli civilians were killed on Thursday when a Hamas rocket hit their home in Kiryat Malachi, about 25 km north of Gaza.

Israeli air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv at nightfall Thursday, but the rocket that triggered them fell into the sea, an Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor. “Confirmed:despite sirens in Tel Aviv, rockets did not land in the area,” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Leibovich wrote on Twitter.  Israel warned, however, that a strike on Tel Aviv could trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Thursday, another rocket fired from Gaza struck an open area near Rishon LeZion, a city with more than 200,000 people, Leibovich said.

The seemingly deeper reach of Hamas rockets into Israel may suggest that since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, “the smuggling routes have flourished,” allowing Hamas to grow its stockpile of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor by email Thursday. “If this is the case, the stockpile could be significant.”

Palestinians held a funeral for Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari Thursday, a day after he was targeted in an Israeli air strike. Israeli media reported that Jabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, had been involved in back channel talks about a long-term Hamas-Israel truce.

“Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported. “This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit.”

Witnesses posted video of the US-provided  Iron Dome missile defense system attempting to intercept Hamas rocket fire.

President Barack Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.  The US and Egyptian leaders agreed on the importance of efforts to de-escalate the situation, the White House said in a read out of the call.

Egypt, amid street protests in Cairo against the Israel action, recalled its ambassador to Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt had already returned to Israel before the military operation began, to avoid being expelled, Israeli media reported.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session behind closed doors Wednesday night at Egypt’s request. Arab League foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday for consultations on the crisis.

The number of Palestinians injured in the military action to date was disputed, with Israeli sources saying 80 injured, and Palestinians saying 130. Among the Palestinian civilians killed was the 11 month old son of BBC producer Jihad Masharawi in Gaza, BBC colleagues said. “This was Jihad’s 11 month old son Omar who was killed in #Gaza yesterday when a shell came through the roof,” BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar posted on Twitter. Continue reading

Israel kills Hamas militant, announces military operation in Gaza underway


Israel on Wednesday said it had killed a top Hamas military commander as it launched a new military operation in Gaza following several days of rocket attacks into southern Israel.

Ahmed al-Jaabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, was killed in Gaza City when his car was hit by an Israeli air strike, Israeli officials said, in what they emphasized was just the start of the military action, code-named “Operation Cloud Pillar” in Hebrew, but translated into “Pillar of Defense” in English.

“After the rocket fire of recent days, the [Israeli Defense Forces] chief of staff has decided to authorize the targeting of terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others,” IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters Wednesday, Agence France Press reported. “This is the beginning.”

A Palestinian stringer on the ground in Gaza told Al Monitor that eight Palestinians had been killed, and 64 Palestinians injured since the Israeli action got underway, as of 10:30 PM local time. The stringer said at least two children were among the dead.

The Israeli Defense Forces said they had targeted Jaabari because he “served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the state of Israel in the past number of years,” the New York Times reportedContinue reading

Sudan accuses Israel of striking Khartoum arms factory

Sudan has accused Israel of being behind air strikes that targeted a Khartoum military complex around midnight Wednesday. The strikes, reportedly carried out by four aircraft, killed two people and caused a huge, fiery explosion at an arms factory located at a Sudanese army complex, local reports said.

“We think Israel did the bombing,” Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told a press conference Wednesday, the AAP news service reported, adding that Khartoum “reserve(s) the right” to respond at a “place and time” of its choosing.

Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), declined to comment on the Sudanese charge. “I will not comment on those reports,” Leibovich told journalists Wednesday, speaking on a press call organized by the Israel Project.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly refused comment, telling reporters in Israel Wednesday, “I have nothing to say about this thing,” Reuters reported.

Israel similarly did not confirm or deny its widely reported role in 2009 strikes on alleged weapons convoys in Sudan. But Israeli analysts have given broad credence to the claims, noting Israel suspects that Sudan is being used as a transit hub for Iran arms supplied to militant groups in Gaza via Sudan and Egypt.

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